Family Ties Keep Laughlin Memorial Chapel’s Bond Strong in Wheeling

AReyah Prayear and Donrita Robinson

WHEELING — Family and the value of family ties is not just a concept at Laughlin Memorial Chapel in East Wheeling, it is a reality played out by employees, mentors and even Afterschool Jam students.

There are currently four families either working together or attending one of the Chapel’s programs. Executive Director Georgia Kurko, Ph.D., characterizes the families who work or attend Chapel as stellar examples for students to see strong familial bonds on a regular basis.

“It’s a great asset for Chapel because the families, the literal families, are quality people who have come here intentionally,” Kurko said. “It does impress upon the children that this is a valuable place when they see that lived out because people have come back after being here as young people or have been here and then invited other family in. Our students are very curious about our family relationships.”

Program Coordinator Judith Saunders and Administrative Assistant and mentor Ellen Saunders are sisters-in-law. Judith’s sister Janet Jackson-Wallace leads Kids Cafe as head chef and their cousin Brenda Green is an Afterschool Jam mentor.

The Saunders ladies echo how the best part of their jobs is making a positive difference in the children’s lives through guidance. They play an important part in creating a comfortable environment for students to thrive.

“It (Chapel) is a safe place,” Ellen said. “Even when the students require discipline, they know that we care about them. We live out our motto: ‘We care about you, we want you to act better, and we want you to do better.’ That’s part of being in a family. When you’re in a family, you have to have discipline, but still, you have to have love, too.”

Transportation Coordinator Bianca Miller works with her son Kristofer Miller, a Kids Cafe assistant, and her youngest son Justin Tucker is a member of the K-1st grade Afterschool Jam classroom. Bianca not only enjoys being able to work around her sons, but also says the Chapel’s program has helped her younger son overcome separation anxiety and learn to open up to adults and his peers.

“When Justin started here last year, he wouldn’t even look anybody in their face,” Miller explained. “From September of last year until April of last year, you just saw him open up. It’s like his shell was cracked and he started smiling and acknowledging everybody.”

Mentor Donrita Robinson also sees how Chapel is positively influencing her nine-year-old daughter AReyah Prayear. Robinson said she’s learned social skills, she’s made friends, and she’s very willing to help other students during classroom time.

“Being here with her benefits both of us because we still get that time together and I get to watch her flourish in a social setting,” Robinson stated.

Facilities Coordinator Keith Miller co-leads the Young Lions Club with his son Maurice serving as drumming instructor, and Keith’s fifth grade son Malachi attends Afterschool Jam. He said Chapel has been a good place for his sons to spend time in the afternoons during both of those young men’s school years.

“It’s (Chapel’s) a good place for the community,” Keith emphasized. “It gives kids structure and plus it’s a faith-based organization.”

The Chapel’s literal families are setting a positive example for students to observe family members working together to help others. Judith said she loves working with her sister and extended family members because they are very close, all sharing the common goal of wanting to make a lasting positive impact on Chapel’s students’ lives.

“I can safely say that for the family members who are working at Chapel that’s why we’re here. We want to make a positive difference in these kids’ lives,” Judith concluded.

Kurko uses the positive example of these family ties to encourage students in Chapel’s family to remember to find a way to give back to Chapel–or a similar community organization–in their futures. “I stress to them that they’re here for more than one reason and that part of the blessing of having a Chapel family is to pass that blessing along when they’re older. One of my dreams is that Chapel’s children and teens will be encouraged to make a positive difference in future young people’s lives precisely because we are taking time here and now to do that for them.”

The dream has come true in the past–Bianca and Keith, along with Maurice–were Chapel students when they were younger and have returned to serve. The dream has the potential to spread to other communities in the near future, due in part to Wheeling Jesuit University student Dominic Oliver’s catching of that vision.

Dominic joined Chapel’s volunteer staff in the 2017/18 school year and was such a skilled and dedicated mentor to Chapel’s students that he began this current school year as a part-time mentor in the K-1st grade classroom. He works specifically with a group of first graders but of course interacts with the entire Chapel student body. “We wish we had more volunteers and mentors like Dominic,” Judith pointed out. “He makes a positive difference every single Chapel day.” Dominic recently shared with Dr. Kurko that part of his plan after graduation is to take the model of Chapel’s Afterschool Jam back to his home community and implement a plan to start such a similar organization there.

“I don’t know if we’ll have the same level of success in recruiting members of the same family as Chapel has done,” Dominic reflected after learning about the Chapel’s family ties. “But I do know that that is a great goal. My mother has always been involved in ministry to children; I plan to include her from the opening day of the Chapel I want to start in Maryland. I sure hope she is willing to join my team!”

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